Friday, October 1, 2010

Helicopters and Boomerangs

My wife and I have no children, but we're quite familiar with thousands of other peoples' kids from our combined 60+ years of teaching. My wife encountered them at a particularly difficult age (Middle School) when the hormones were beginning to kick in, and I saw them as they made their way through college and were preparing for their entry into the "real" world.

Our teaching careers spanned the period from 1970 to 2000, a time filled with some rather dramatic social/political/technological/economic changes that posed tough challenges for teaching and most certainly for being a parent. And both teaching and parenting seemed to us to get more and more difficult and complex over time. Of course, at the end of a day, we could always go home and have a stiff drink and leave the kids behind. Parents, though, had no such easy escape, and we have come to appreciate how hard it must be for parents in today's society.

Recently I came across a couple of interesting references to current issues involved in parenting. The first is a book by sociologist Margaret K. Nelson, Parenting Out of Control : Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times.  The second is a research article by another sociologist, Barbara Hofer, entitled "The Electronic Tether: Parental Regulation, Self-Regulation, and the Role of Technology in College Transitions."   Both of these seem to be relevant to two terms in common usage these days:  "helicopter parents," which refers to parents that "hover" over their children and are involved in every aspect of their lives, and "boomerang kids,"  which describes young adults who strike out on their own but then return to their families after a short time.

The Boomerang phenomenon seems to be real and increasing. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center,  20 percent of U.S. adults aged 25-34 live with their parents or grandparents in 2008, compared to just 11 percent in 1980, with a recent increase of 1 percent just since 2007, probably associated with the economic downturn.  The authors suggest that this trend is due to a number of social and economic factors, including the fact that both men and women marry for the first time about five years later than they did forty years ago:  "One byproduct of this cultural shift is that there are more unmarried 20-somethings in the population, many of whom consider their childhood home to be an attractive living situation, especially when a bad economy makes it difficult for them to find jobs or launch careers."

Putting aside the economic factor for a moment, the attractiveness of living with one's parents in adulthood is somewhat puzzling.  On the one hand we have a society in which "adult" themes are introduced to children at younger and younger ages and in which they face difficult personal decisions regarding sex, drugs, and alcohol earlier than the older generation did.  And in many respects we regard children as more mature at a younger age than our parents regarded us.  On the other hand we have increasing numbers of young adults delaying their entry into an independent and socially mature life on their own.

At least some parents seem conflicted about the ability of their offspring to function on their own, as indicated by the research of  Nelson and Hofer mentioned above.  Hofer's study of college freshmen and sophomores indicates rather clearly that the experience of going off to school is no longer the exercise in independence and freedom that it once was. Many parents maintain close contact with their sons and daughters at college, and involve themselves in academic and personal decisions that used to be left to the students themselves, perhaps with occasional consultation with parents:
"Until fairly recently, when students left home for college, contact with parents was markedly diminished, paving the way for students to make more decisions without parental consultation and to learn to function as emerging adults. With the advent of e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, Skype (software that allows users to make telephone calls over the Internet), and other technological advances, however, it is possible for students to remain in frequent contact with their parents, regardless of the distance between them." (Hofer, 2008).
I recall my own college days, when I phoned home maybe once or twice a month, usually to ask for money.  In contrast, Hofer found that students in her study communicated with their parents an average of 13 times a week (!) and that this frequency did not decline from freshman to junior year.  About half of the contacts were initiated by parents and half by students.  Further, both sides seemed satisfied with this level of communication, indicating that students hardly resisted this degree of parental involvement in their lives.  Despite this mutual satisfaction,  Hofer found that parental regulation of students was not necessarily a good thing:  "Such attempts to regulate behavior from afar are negatively related to enthusiasm for learning, to student academic regulation, and to satisfaction both with experience in classes and with the overall college experience."  Importantly, students who were better at self-regulation were more likely to have a better relationship with both professors and other students, to have enthusiasm for learning, to be satisfied with their overall college experience, and to have a higher GPA.

The "hovering" of these "helicopter" parents is perhaps well-motivated, but as Hofer's data suggest, it may be having consequences that the parents neither intend nor desire.

Margaret Nelson's research examines hovering in a broader context as one aspect of a style of child rearing frequently adopted by professional middle-class parents.  She refers to this style as parenting that
"....includes a lengthy perspective on children’s dependency without a clear launching point for a grown child, a commitment to creating “passionate” people who know how to find a “proper” balance between working hard and having fun, personalized and negotiated guidance in the activities of daily life, respectful responsiveness to children’s individual needs and desires, a belief in boundless potential, ambitious goals for achievement, and an intense engagement with children who in previous generations might have been encouraged to begin the process of separation. Privileged parents also put child rearing front and center: even in the midst of extremely busy lives, they highlight the significance and meaning they find in this activity, and they avoid shortcuts (such as playpens) that could make their job easier. Parents who view themselves as being much alone in the task of raising children and as having sole responsibility for their children’s safety and psychological well-being readily embrace these burdens. "(Nelson, 2010)
There are inevitable conflicts for these parents that arise from simultaneously wanting to protect kids from growing up too quickly and yet pushing them to high levels of achievement at a young age:  "The latter impulse often leads to treating their children as peers and to claiming that those children can be trusted to make decisions on their own; the former impulse often leads to hovering and to concealed surveillance."  The motivation of parents to prepare their children for a complex and uncertain future leads to intensely managing their activities to provide them with a broad array of skills and experiences,  enrolling even their very young children in a "dazzling array of 'extracurricular'" activities"  and providing them with the latest technological tools.  This may in turn require even greater levels of involvement: "Having purchased devices such as cell phones and laptop computers so that their children will not be left behind in the race to the top, and having encouraged their children to participate in scheduled activities from morning to night, elite parents then worry that they have overindulged, overscheduled, and overpressured their children. Some of the hovering they do is thus to keep track of the consequences of patterns of child rearing they have created."

Nelson's analysis makes it more understandable why young adults would find returning home attractive. The intense, intimate, and structuring interactions they have had with their parents all of their lives would be quite comforting and appealing.

I'm not sure what style of parenting I might have adopted, but the characteristics of the style Nelson describes might well have applied to me, both the positive motivations and the unintended negative consequences for my offspring as well as for myself.  Of course, without children of my own this is a nice rhetorical exercise.

I think I'll ponder that question more over a stiff drink.......


Hofer, Barbara K. (2008). The Electronic Tether: Parental Regulation, Self-Regulation, and the Role of Technology in College Transitions. Journal of The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 9-24.

Nelson, Margaret K. (2010) Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times. New York : New York University Press.


Anonymous said...

When I went to school, my mom informed me how she sent her mom (my gma) a letter a day when my mom was in college. I told my mom, "If those are your expectations, you are going to be diappointed." I hope I won't be a hoverer or helicopter, but we'll see.

PaddleDoc said...

Should be interesting to see how my daughter's kids turn out on this level. She's a better parent than I was and her kids seem less troubled or at least, in less trouble. Always interesting to test your own life-theories on little people! Sad when it doesn't go so well.